Monica Greer spends her days calling Michigan’s unemployment hotline. It’s been more than a month since she was laid off from her position as pastry chef at Leila, a splashy new Lebanese restaurant and bar in downtown Detroit, and she’s yet to receive a check from the state. Nearly every day since filing for unemployment, Greer has called that state agency no fewer than 50 times in an attempt to resolve the issues on her account. One day, she called upward of 200 times. “It’s like a full-time job,” she says.
More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past six weeks. In Michigan alone, an estimated 1.2 million people have already applied for unemployment. At the same time roughly 350,000 Michigan hospitality workers have been laid off or furloughed in Michigan due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. It’s unclear when or if those jobs will return.
While some Michiganders have had a relatively easy time filing for unemployment, many — including scores of laid-off food and beverage workers like Greer — have struggled for weeks to obtain their benefits from a state agency that’s been swamped by applications.
Greer’s story reflects those of many industry employees. She felt secure and comfortable in her job until it abruptly evaporated with the implementation of dine-in service closures on March 16. (The order has since been extended through May 28.) Greer recalls helping close down the restaurant for service on the weekend prior to the order coming through. She and other employees were told by management not to come to work the following day. Then, on Monday, managers gathered for a meeting. “It was the most somber experience,” she says of the mood in the room. “We all sat down. We talked about what was going on. [The owners] were very sad, and they were like, ‘We can’t continue. We’ve got to let everyone go.’”
Management worked together to clean and pack up food at the restaurant to be sent to sister restaurants in Birmingham. Employees were paid hourly for the day and guaranteed benefits through the end of the month. Then they were sent home.
For Greer, and fellow staff, it was a hard fall coming from being named the Detroit Free Press’s Best New Restaurant to closing all in the span of a month. The pastry chef, who is an alum of Lady of the House, took a few days to come to grips with the situation and then began the process of filing for unemployment.
From the outset, Greer had a difficult time. The application system would issue a code for each individual to log in online, but the code wouldn’t arrive on her phone until hours later — usually around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Then, when she tried to input the code, she received an error message. “That was the beginning of the frustration,” Greer says. She started becoming intimately familiar with the unemployment hotline: the prompts, the message notifying applicants of the high call volume, and then the inevitable hangup from the agency.
During the first week of April, Greer finally got through on her 17th call of the day to a human who informed her the error message was due to the fact that she had a second account from a past attempt to file for unemployment in 2012. (She hadn’t qualified, and therefore had forgotten about it.) Greer and the unemployment agency representative were able to get her form filed and she was told to call back in two weeks to certify. After two attempts, she was able to certify, but then was told that the agency needed more information from her. Because of the two separate accounts associated with her name, she’s unable to log in to provide the additional information and is relegated to calling daily.
With her unemployment check feeling far out of reach, Greer is falling behind on her bills and running out of options. “My finances are a shambles,” she says. She’s currently two months behind on her credit cards and is fortunate that her landlord has been very understanding of the situation. She has been able to obtain food stamps and filed for Medicaid coverage. Still, she and her husband are relying on the help of friends and family until their checks come through. During Eater’s call with Greer on Wednesday, her husband was on the phone trying to get through to obtain his check.
At the same time, the benefits have laid bare the systemic inequities within the restaurant industry. Prior to the pandemic, roughly one in six restaurant workers lived in poverty, relying on minimum wage or the tipped minimum wage ($3.67 per hour plus an average of $5.98 tips per hour in Michigan). On unemployment with the expanded benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic, many former restaurant employees find themselves making more money by not working. That makes it hard for employers to hire staff back after a layoff.
Godwin Ihentuge, the owner of Yum Village in New Center, has been trying to keep his business afloat during the pandemic. The restaurant was the awarded a Paycheck Protection Program loan during the first round of funding distribution. Ihentuge was encouraged by his bank to accept the money, despite the fact that he had already laid off his employees. One of the stipulations of the loan was that he needs to bring workers back onto payroll and use up 75 percent of the loan on payroll by the end of June. Ihentuge, like many small-business owners, feels trapped by the requirements attached to the loan. “I am in a very rock-and-a-hard-place [situation],” he says.
The majority of his former employees are currently receiving $900 a week on unemployment — far more than they would be likely be earning on Yum Village’s payroll. He doesn’t blame them for not wanting to coming back. “I’ve never made $900 a week in my life,” Ihentuge remarks. “Why endanger people for $11 bucks an hour, $13 an hour?”
On the flipside, Greer had planned to ride out the pandemic until her employment benefits ran out. However, being unable to secure her monthly payments has made her consider trying to go back to work.
“I’m on the verge of starting to see what people want from me — like if I can bake and they can come pick it up or make dinners every Sunday. I’m scared to get a job, because I don’t have a car,” she says, noting that for years she actively chose to take public transportation to work before the crisis. Two months ago, she could have afforded to buy a car. These days, she doesn’t have the money. “Now, I don’t want to ride the bus, because I’m scared of getting COVID.
“It’s not like I’m incapable of working. I would love to be able to work again. At this point, I’m on the verge of going up to the grocery store at the end of my street and being like, ‘Yo, do you need help?’”
For now, Greer is keeping herself busy with reading, playing video games, and crocheting. She likes to crochet, because it feels active but also means she has something to give to someone else when she finishes a project. “I’m keeping myself occupied, but I just want to work. I miss working, I miss baking, I miss making people happy with food.”